Interview: Amada Cruz
by Claire Ruud
Amada Cruz, recently appointed Executive Director of Artpace, is about to make the move from Los Angeles to San Antonio. In LA, she’s been the Program Director with United States Artists since its founding in 2005. But she’s done the small city thing before, too, as Director of Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art. Now, Cruz will assume the reigns of an organization that has gone for nearly two years without a permanent director. Her appointment is the board’s second attempt to secure a leader for Artpace. Regine Basha resigned after only two months on the job due to health issues. Cruz is circumspect about Artpace’s future; she wants to be on the ground there before forming a vision for the organization. Still, our conversation provides a window into her leadership style: thoughtful, systematic and driven by a tremendous appreciation for the artist.
Claire Ruud [CR]: You’ve been with United States Artists from the very beginning. Tell me what you were tasked with when you got the job.
Amada Cruz [AC]: I was charged with starting the grant program, and the core of the program is the grants we give to individual artists. Every year, 50 artists get $50,000 a piece. I was interested in the cross disciplinary nature of the granting program. We decided to go for a nomination-based process, so instead of getting slammed with two million applications from around the country we actually have a big database of experts in all fields who may nominate artists. Setting up the whole process was a challenge because we didn’t have much time. Let’s see, I was hired in February and we wanted to send checks out to artists by the end of the year. We held eight discipline-specific selection panels during that summer, essentially one every week, just because we had such a compressed schedule that first year. It was pretty insane, but it was also really inspiring. I just finished the last panel for this summer yesterday—it was media—and witnessing five experts in a room talking about artists is just incredible. It’s like being in graduate school. I’ve learned so much.
[CR]: How will the multidisciplinarity of USA’s granting program affect the way you think about Artpace’s programming?
[AC]: I’ve been wondering about that myself. I think it’s inevitable just because I don’t think about creativity across the country in such a discipline-specific way anymore. Yesterday, for instance, at the dinner with our five media panelists, mostly film people and radio producers, my move to Artpace came up. I was struck by how much film people knew about the visual arts and how excited they were about artists like Christian Marclay and Isaac Julien, who have both shown at Artpace and cross these disciplinary boundaries. I don’t know exactly how this will affect my work at Artpace yet, but it’s definitely broadened my perspective about art across the country.
[CR]: You’ve worked in such a wide variety of arts organizations in such a variety of functions. You’ve been program director at USA, you’ve been a curator and director at Bard’s Hessel Museum, you were the director at Artadia. What about this job at Artpace is going to be really new and different for you?
[AC]: I have a really sentimental attachment to Artpace. I got familiar with it way back when Linda Pace first started the organization with Laurence Miller and asked me to come and be on one of the early juries. In those days it was a group of curators who selected the artists to be invited for the year. This is before the one curator three artists model. It was a really wonderful experience.
[CR]: The early Artpace model sounds a lot like USA’s model.
[AC]: Yes, and USA is based on the model from the NEA so it’s a fairly traditional grant selection model. So Artpace had a lot of impact on me because I was younger, just starting out, and I was captivated by this idea of what you could do just by extending an invitation to an artist and giving them funds, freedom to do what they wanted and time. So as a curator I did a lot of what you might call commissioning, which was getting some funds into the hands of an artist to make new work for an exhibition. So I’ve had this attachment to Artpace and I’ve gone back many times. I was on the board of visitors early on, and then joined the board again about a year ago, so I know the organization and I know the history.
A few things interest me about Artpace. I’ve moved around a bit, as you mentioned, and one of the things that has always been difficult to reconcile in any city, even New York, is the local practices and community with a global practice and community. How do you honor what’s happening locally and still make that relevant to what’s happening internationally? How do you bring in what’s happening internationally to local context in a way that makes sense? It’s not easy. But I think the model at Artpace is actually quite successful. Three artists: one’s from Texas, one works nationally, and the other one is from abroad. It’s a very simple premise, but it’s been quite successful.
[CR]: Do you think there’s room for improvement on that core model?
[AC]: There’s always improvements for everything, but I’m not there yet.
[CR]: One of the things that Regine had pointed out when I spoke with her after she took the position was that Artpace is one of the few very production-oriented residencies.
[AC]: That is very true, and that’s always exciting. It’s also a risk because you don’t know what you’re going to get. But that’s the fun part. You get to observe the process in a very intimate way. I don’t know how many opportunities the audience has to appreciate that. I’ll have to get there and see. Is there a way to communicate to an audience what that process is like? And how do you do it without imposing a great burden on the artists who are working there? How do you demystify the artistic process.
[CR]: What are the first three questions that you’ll be asking when you get to Artpace?
[AC]: I’m wondering about the Hudson Show Room. I want to evaluate how that is working right now and see how that can be improved upon, and again I don’t have an answer, just questions. Should the Hudson Show Room even have exhibitions? If they do should they relate more to the residents who are coming in? Do you do a show that gives a taste of the work of the residents who will be coming in so it functions almost as an introduction to what’s coming? Is it an event space? Do you bring people in for readings or lectures when Artpace is “down” when the residents are working privately?
[CR]: I agree. The core residency program at Artpace is so strong. How do you build supporting programs that are augmenting that rather than sapping energy from it?
[AC]: Exactly. In general, another question I’ll be asking—and this is a big one—is how to expand the base of support for Artpace. And then a third question, is Artpace truly integrated in the cultural community of San Antonio? It might be, I just don’t know. That’s a question for me. Is it? And if not, can we integrate it more. Are there people out there who need to be welcomed into the Artpace family?
[CR]: Are you thinking about primarily expanding support for Artpace regionally or nationally?
[AC]: I think it can probably be expanded within the actual city, but there’s definitely an opportunity for increased national support of Artpace. When I first started going to Artpace, there were a bunch of us who used to go maybe three times a year. That’s pretty often when you’re living far away outside Texas, or even outside the US. I’m hoping we can increase that.
[CR]: It has to be a destination. I lived in Austin for five years, and I went to almost every show, but it required most of a day. It was a pilgrimage. You’ve worked in a more remote place before, when you were up at Bard.
[AC]: Yes, it was an hour and a half from New York City, but people came. I think that if your programming is strong enough, people will come. I positioned Bard as an alternative to what was happening in the city. It was close enough to New York that I thought that I might be able to draw an audience, but I knew it had to be for things that weren’t happening in New York. So I did things like Takashi Murakami’s first major show in the US. I knew that he had this really strong following among artists and a big enough show would be so unusual that people would come up. And they did. The other show that was really successful in drawing large audiences from New York was Christian Marclay. Again, no museum in New York City took the show so I jumped on it. It’s all about really strong programming. Artpace can do that, but I need to understand what exactly strong programming means in this context. And if we are an alternative in San Antonio, what are we an alternative to?
[CR]: Right now you’re in a much, much bigger city out in LA. What do you think are the advantages of the smaller scene?
[AC]: I think there are lots of advantages actually. The challenge of living in LA is to feel like a part of any community. The geography works against that. Everybody is so dispersed. I’m assuming that in a place like San Antonio you really do see people all the time. I’m really looking forward to just bumping into people, and I’m really looking forward to feeling a part of a community in a more intense way than I feel in LA.
[CR]: A danger in a small scene is that people treat each other too delicately, I think.
[AC]: I was thinking that it would be the opposite – like family. You know how you can get so contentious with your own family and people you’re close to? I was thinking it would be more of a situation where you’re close enough to someone that they can actually criticize what you do.
[CR]: Now that you say that I can think of the handful of people for whom it was that way, among one another.
[AC]: Maybe it’s a little bit of both. You have these intense friendships because you’re with each other essentially all the time, so it makes for more candid conversations. But I think you’re right. If you’re dealing with a smaller ecosystem, maybe people do feel a little more cautious about putting ripples into the system.
[CR]: It’s occurred to me that even New York and LA can feel the same way—no matter the size, any scene can feel a little solipsistic.
[AC]: Every city has its own provincialism. It doesn’t matter how big or small.
[CR]: The difference, though, is that in New York and LA, you really do have the people coming to you from the outside. In San Antonio and Austin, you have to work a little bit harder to make sure that those people are coming through, to make sure you’re reaching out.
[AC]: I would say that you have to work a lot harder in LA than in New York.
[CR]: So when you were at Bard did you live out in Rhinebeck?
[AC]: I lived close by in a town called Clinton Corners.
[CR]: So being a little bit off the grid doesn’t scare you?
[AC]: No. I mean that’s a good question, I’ve been asked that for months by other people, and I’m not worried about that. There are cities that I would not want to live in, but I’m looking forward to living in San Antonio. It’sactually one of my favorite cities in the country.
[CR]: What makes it one of your favorite cities?
[AC]: I think it’s because my introduction to San Antonio was through Artpace and through art. I think of it as this incredibly strong visual arts city where people are liberal, they embrace the arts, and have this wonderful curiosity about what’s going on in the world. And they’re fun,! I always have such a good time when I go. That’s my experience of Texas as a whole.
[CR]: When I was at Fluent~Collaborative, I noticed that artists from New York and other larger cities really appreciated the close-knitness of the community, the slightly slower pace that allows reflection and conversation, and the eagerness with which the community embraces outsiders because we’re so hungry for fresh energy and perspective.
[AC]: I totally understand what you’re saying because that’s the way I feel about San Antonio.
[CR]: What are the dangers that you’re worried about?
[AC]: I’m not that worried honestly (laughs). I am really looking forward to this.
[CR]: Okay, well I’ll tell you one of my worries. I’m worried that the core supporters of the arts in Austin and San Antonio are tired. There are a handful of people who have been dealing with a lot of crises and changes at the Artpace, Arthouse, Austin Museum of Art, and the Blanton over the past few years. I’m worried about—I’m guessing there’s some fatigue.
[AC]: That occurs everywhere. There’s always a reason for fatigue in any organization. There’s always donor fatigue because you’re constantly being asked for money. That’s the way these organizations are, they need money to keep them going. That’s sort of a given, and I’m not worried about it because I’m used to it.
[CR]: So how do you manage that fatigue?
[AC]: You have to create excitement. You have to create it pretty quickly, because everybody has their honeymoon period. When you have someone new coming in, there’s a lot of excitement. It’s a great thing, I’m excited, hopefully people in San Antonio are excited, and you really need to capitalize on that energy by doing some bold things from the very beginning. Excitement makes people do wonderful things.
In fundraising, the motto is that money follows vision. You have to create a really exciting vision for an organization, and people will support it.
[CR]: Pre-financial crisis, “money follows vision” often meant “money follows expansion.” Is there a way to get away from that model?
[AC]: There are different kinds of expansion. There’s building expansion, and there are certain collectors and foundations and city organizations that like to fund buildings. It’s wonderful to have a beautiful building by a great architect, don’t get me wrong. Part of the reason everybody goes to the Menil is because they have an incredible building. But that is not at the essence of most art organizations. The essence is really the content that you’re creating through your programming. And I think that people are actually thinking more in those terms now. But these things are challenging. Fundraising is always challenging. Always.
[CR]: So on a lighter note than fundraising, although that’s always important, I want to get a sense of your creative sensibility—can you talk about an artist who’s excited you recently, or a book that has really changed the way you’ve thought?
[AC]: I’m a huge reader of fiction. One of my favorite grant panels I run here is the literature panel. Not that this is anything too original because this book won the Pulitzer Prize, but Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad I thought was amazing. Have you read it?
[CR]: No I haven’t, so I’m not sure what question to ask.
[AC]: It’s so brilliant. It’s these interwoven stories of this group of people who are in New York during the 80’s, and it delves into the music scene. Part of the reason I liked it so much is that I was in New York, I went to NYU during that time period, went to some of those clubs, so it really spoke to me. It’s written in a really interesting way, and she experiments with the language as well. That book really affected me this year.
The other book that I was really surprised by how much I liked and have been thinking about a lot is Steve Jobs’ biography. I’ve been telling everyone to read it. What I love about the things Jobs made is their design. Even the plugs for these things are so beautifully designed. The way that he worked was so much like an artist; this level of obsession with things like rounded corners. His favorite form was a rectangle with rounded corners. So when you text your friend, the little text bubble is not round, it’s a rectangle with rounded corners. He would blow the bank to make sure his tech people could get that shape into the machine. It’s this level of attention to detail that so many artists also have. That I found completely fascinating.
[CR]: What about films?
[AC]: I see so many movies, and not just because I’m in LA. Again, not so original, but Beasts of the Southern Wild, have you seen that?
[CR]: Yes, I have.
[AC]: I thought it was extraordinarily moving, and I saw images that I haven’t seen before—that’s really rare in filmmaking. Melancholia, I thought that was the best of last year. I’ve actually walked out of Lars von Trier’s films before because he’s so misogynistic, but I thought this was visually extraordinary. I’m kind of omnivorous when it comes to art. Part of it is my work, but I like to have a broader sense of what culture is.
[CR]: And when are you starting at Artpace?
[AC]: I start November 5th, that Monday.
[CR]: Are you going to take some time off to drive across?
[AC]: Nine days. The last day I’m working is October 25th and the plan is to get in the car and drive through Tucson and then go to Marfa for a couple days because I haven’t been there in a really long time. We spend a couple nights in Marfa and then on to San Antonio.
[CR]: My partner and I just did that drive in the opposite direction. The southwest is really something else. I hope you have time to really soak it in and enjoy it.
Claire Ruud has an M.A. in art history from The University of Texas at Austin and an M.B.A. at The Yale University School of Management. She thinks a lot about feminism, queer theory and financing contemporary art production.